Racing to Rescue Koalas

Koalas are under siege. Can Australia rescue them?

This story appears in the May 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine.

It’s two in the morning and a koala is caught in barbed wire on a fence, like a prisoner trying to escape. A phone rings in the home of Megan Aitken in Burpengary, a suburb north of Brisbane. Aitken, 42, runs a volunteer organization devoted to rescuing wild koalas from a surprisingly wide array of hazards. Before the dispatcher has even given her the location, she has thrown her clothes on over her pajamas.

When Aitken arrives on the scene, Jane Davies and Sandra Peachey, two other volunteers, are already there. The koala is clinging to a chain-link fence, its fur snagged in horizontal strands of barbed wire. Towering eucalyptus trees, as pale as ghosts, rise on the far side of the fence.

“He was obviously trying to get to the trees on the other side,” Aitken says.

Standing in the bright cones of car headlights, Aitken pulls on heavy leather welding gloves. Despite their huggable, stuffed-animal appearance, koalas can be ferocious when resisting capture. They’ll growl, flail, fight, and bite like angry raccoons, and Aitken has the scars to prove it. Next she places a wire cage on the ground near the animal and opens up a thick blanket. Then the three rescuers rapidly get to work.

Davies throws the blanket over the animal, both to calm it and to protect the rescuers from its teeth and claws. Peachey opens the lid of the cage, while Aitken firmly grasps the little black-nosed beast through the blanket, frees it from the fence, and drops it snarling and snapping into the cage.

“Well done, ladies!” Aitken shouts.

Looking down at the round-eyed koala they’ve just captured, Aitken considers a new problem. If this koala were sick or injured, they’d take it to the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital, 40 minutes north in Beerwah. But the animal is healthy. By protocol they must release it somewhere nearby, since koalas have a home range and feed in the same trees over and over. Yet this is Deception Bay, a densely populated suburb. The women study a street map with flashlights.

“This is the whole problem,” Aitken says, exasperated. “There are so few places left for the koala.” In the end they take the animal several blocks to tiny Boama Park, which borders a stretch of open land reaching all the way to the beach. Deep in the night the women carry the cage through the trees, setting it below a gray-skinned eucalyptus. Standing back, they spring the lid of the cage, and the koala dashes up the trunk and disappears.

“Good luck, little one,” Aitken says.

It will take a lot more than luck.

The koala, cuddly symbol of a nation and one of the most beloved animals on the planet, is in crisis. Before Europeans settled Australia more than two centuries ago, about ten million koalas lived in a 1,500-mile-long swath of the east coast eucalyptus forests. Hunted for their luxurious fur, koalas were brought to the edge of extinction in the southern half of their range. In the northern half, Queensland, a million were killed in 1919 alone. After the last open season in Queensland was held in 1927, only tens of thousands remained.

Through the next half century their numbers slowly rebounded, in part due to efforts to relocate and recolonize them. Then urbanization began to take its toll. Habitat was lost, and diseases spread. With urbanization came the threat of dogs and highways. Since 1990, when about 430,000 koalas inhabited Australia, their numbers have dropped sharply. Because surveys are difficult, current population estimates vary widely—from a low of 44,000 by advocacy groups to a high of 300,000 by government agencies. More than a decade ago a survey of the Koala Coast, a 93,000-acre region in southeastern Queensland, estimated a koala population of 6,200; today there are believed to be around 2,000.

“Koalas are getting caught in fences and dying, being killed by dogs, struck by vehicles, even dying simply because a homeowner cut down several eucalyptus trees in his backyard,” says Deidré de Villiers, one of the chief koala researchers at the Queensland Department of Environment and Resource Management. For 15 years de Villiers, 38, has been tracking koalas, monitoring populations, studying the reasons for their decline, and creating guidelines to make development more koala-friendly.

De Villiers insists that koalas and humans can coexist in urban environments “if developers get on board with koala-sensitive designs,” such as lower speed limits for streets, green corridors for koala movement, and, most especially, preserving every precious eucalyptus tree. Unfortunately, koalas have another problem.

“Disease is the other huge issue,” says veterinarian Jon Hanger, 42, from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Queensland. Hanger has discovered that as much as half of Queensland’s koala population may be affected by the sexually transmitted disease chlamydiosis. In some wild koala populations more than 50 percent of the sexually mature females are infertile. The genesis of the disease is unknown, but it manifests itself as urogenital and ocular disease and is transmitted through mating and birthing, as well as fighting among males. Unlike in humans, chlamydiosis in koalas is often fatal.

“Koala populations that used to be vibrant and sustainable are becoming extinct,” says Hanger, who puts the blame squarely on the provincial government. “Queensland has failed miserably to do anything meaningful about the decline. The federal government needs to get involved and do it properly, listing the koala as vulnerable to extinction.” Such a designation might save the last remnants of critical koala habitat, he argues. Hanger is also part of a research team developing a chlamydia vaccine.

A recent report presented to the Australian Senate made several recommendations to save the koalas, including listing the animals as threatened and vulnerable, funding a program to monitor koala populations, mapping their habitat, and managing federal and private lands to protect the koalas. Until such measures are taken, the efforts of grassroots koala emergency squads will continue to be essential.

“The more koalas we lose, the more valuable each rescued koala becomes,” says Hanger.

Deidré de Villiers takes the koalas’ plight personally. Visitors to her home in Loganholme, south of Brisbane, discover that the woman who is a respected koala researcher by day is a doting koala foster parent by night.

“Ruby still sleeps in the basket hugging her teddy bear,” she says. The baby koala is cocooned in a cane picnic basket like an infant in a bassinet. “She was rescued from the jaws of a dog. You want to hold her?”

De Villiers picks up Ruby and hands her to me, the koala’s needle-sharp claws piercing my neck and face. I wince, and de Villiers, whose arms are crosshatched with scratches, laughs.

“She likes to have both hands and feet gripping something when she’s picked up,” she says. My lip is bleeding, so I hand the little beast back. De Villiers gently places Ruby onto a tree limb in her playpen in the dining room. Her playmate, Luna, another orphaned koala, is asleep in the crook of the branch. Through the glass doors of the dining room, out on the patio, a larger playpen is visible, and in the backyard stands a chain-link enclosure filled with trees.

De Villiers is caring for five koalas at once: Ruby, Luna, Tia, Mr. T, and Munchie. Ruby is quiet, Luna is ticklish, Tia likes to jump, Mr. T is mischievous, and Munchie is aloof. Every other day de Villiers cuts and collects eucalyptus leaves, the koalas’ primary food, from a nearby plantation. During the past 12 years, she’s fostered more than 60 animals.

“Ruby has to go to the hospital tomorrow,” she says. “She has a respiratory tract infection that’s not improving.”

The next day she takes Ruby to the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital, a state-of-the-art facility that was built by Steve Irwin, the TV naturalist who died in 2006. Ruby is admitted, sedated, then anesthetized and intubated to feed oxygen and drugs to her lungs. Everything is efficient, orderly, and hyperclean.

“She has a nasty case of pneumonia,” says Amber Gillett, 30, a vet who has worked here for six years. “It can be fatal, particularly for young koalas.”

While de Villiers strokes the still-unconscious Ruby, Gillett flushes the koala’s lungs with a saline solution and takes a sample that is whisked to the lab for culturing. “I’d guess we have about a 70 percent success rate with pneumonia in koala joeys,” she says, as Ruby is wheeled off to the x-ray room. “I think this little one will make it.”

The following afternoon Ruby’s back home, recuperating in a playpen with Luna. One morning not long after, de Villiers sets out into the scrubby forest near Lake Samsonvale, northwest of Brisbane, to catch Tee Vee, a wild koala the researcher has been monitoring for more than a year. The Department of Environment and Resource Management has relocated several koalas into Tee Vee’s territory, and de Villiers has been recording the impact on the local koala population. Using a receiver that resembles an old-fashioned rooftop TV antenna, she walks through second-growth bush, listening for a signal from the koala’s radio collar.

She eventually picks up a faint signal and follows it over hill and dale as the beeping, like a koala Geiger counter, grows louder and louder.

“I see her!” she says finally. A basketball-size gray lump is clinging to a branch of an ironbark tree 50 feet or so directly above.

Capturing a koala high in the canopy is complicated. First a giant slingshot blasts a ball of string over a tree limb close to the koala. This may require several tries. The string is attached to a climbing rope, which is pulled up over the limb and tied off taut to the ground. A 30-foot ladder is then set against the tree. Someone must scale the ladder and inch up the rope, carrying a “flagging pole” like a trapeze artist.

That someone is de Villiers, of course. Rigged out like a rock climber, she scrambles up the tree, agile as a koala herself. Dangling from a limb, she attempts to “flag” the koala, by flapping a flag of plastic or fabric attached to the end of the pole above its head. This annoys koalas, and Tee Vee starts shimmying backward down the trunk.

But Tee Vee, as de Villiers says, “is an obstreperous handful.” Halfway down the tree, the koala runs out on a limb and cleverly jumps into another tree, starting the whole process over again.

The second time Tee Vee backs down, she gets within 20 feet of the ground before freaking out, leaping into midair like a flying squirrel. But koalas are round and don’t fly. Tee Vee lands on the ground and is quickly captured with a blanket, screeching and clawing and biting like a little wolverine.

After Tee Vee is sedated, de Villiers gets to work. Using a variety of instruments, she measures everything from the length of the koala’s body to the width of her skull, the size and wear of her teeth to the silkiness of her fur. Weight and general health are also noted.

“I think she has a baby,” de Villiers says suddenly.

And with that, she slips her finger into the downward-facing pouch, opens it up, and delicately draws out a four-inch-long, blind, furless, alien-looking creature with fully developed razor-sharp claws.

A deep, spontaneous “ahhh” escapes from everyone present, even the rangers who have done this many times before.

De Villiers deftly examines the infant and pouch for any signs of disease or abnormality, then softly pushes the joey back inside the sleeping mother.

“While there are still healthy babies, there’s still hope,” she whispers.